“If we must comingle art and commerce … ” architecture critic Inga Saffron titles a recent article on art museums in the Philadelphia Inquirer, alluding to the idea that mixing business with pleasure is no longer a choice. Saffron laces her language with resignation and looks for the silver lining—at least a few museums can do it well, she says.
Museums have become increasingly popular venues for high-end events. Just a few weeks after I started working at Hanley Wood, the company threw a party at the Library of Congress. Why? Because it’s a breathtaking backdrop for hosting parties. That explains why my company wanted to put on a party there, but why did the library let throngs of partygoers through its doors? Museums are a place for quiet observation and appreciation, not socializing. But many museums today are seeing a fundamental shift in their operations, and it all boils down to one reason: funding. Saffron explains:
Public funding has been drying up since the late ’80s and now barely covers a quarter of the average museum’s operating budget, the American Association of Museums says. To replace the lost government aid, museums everywhere are turning to more overtly commercial, moneymaking ventures.
We see it in the movies all the time: An ad agency’s party at the such-and-such museum in New York City or a political fundraiser set against a lavish art museum in Washington, D.C. It’s now common to see female visitors sporting “skyscraper heels rather than the sensible flats of the serious museumgoer,” Saffron writes. But design, she says, must not suffer.
“We’ve gotten to the point where some museums are starting to feel like giant banquet halls that happen to have exhibition space attached to them,” she said.
While the change may be necessary to keep up financially, it doesn’t mean sacrificing the museums’ missions. In Philadelphia, she points to two small museums in Doylestown and Allentown that balance the philanthropic with the commercial. These museums get it right, she says, by putting their collections first. Since they’ve firmly established their personality, they can now appeal to the late-night crowds who may be looking for a little culture during the daytime. “The hope is that people who first encounter the museums as party guests will return as art patrons.”
No matter how museums choose to go about bringing in patrons, it seems inevitable that the majority of museums will shift to this financial model. With government dollars dwindling, and not likely to come back anytime soon, the “lucrative events business” seems a natural go-to for making up lost profits. The arts and museums have always had to rely on financial support from the wealthy and from private business, but the new normal going forward might just be that this support has to now be of a more overt and public nature, instead of as quiet donations credited only through small print on the back of a brochure.